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Money From the Tobacco Industry Guiding Politics
Tobacco is one of the most profitable cash crops in the history of the United States. Since the original 13 colonies to present-day modern America, tobacco has remained a central part of this country’s economy. In the middle of the Twentieth Century, smoking was portrayed as chic, with mass-produced advertisements featuring the Marlboro Man and Joe the Camel. During the second half of the Twentieth Century, however, scientific research came to the forefront presenting evidence that linked tobacco use to a variety of health maladies. Radio and television commercials were banned, warning labels were added to packages, and anti-smoking campaigns were launched in schools. Yet, there was a powerful force pushing for the continuation of an industry that science had deemed dangers. Tobacco lobbyists funneled millions of dollars into campaign contributions and election strategies. Although tobacco is no longer viewed in a positive light, the lobbyists continue to influence elections, having added soft money donations to their repertoire. Consequently, this research project seeks answers to the following two questions:

  • Did money from the tobacco industry donated to politicians, Democrats or Republicans, lead to the passing of agricultural, economic, or consumer regulations that favored the sale of tobacco?
  • What is the involvement of tobacco-lobby groups in the field of lobbies?

The answers to these research questions are monumentally important as smoking continues to wreak havoc on the health of Americans. Tobacco is the leading cause of preventable death and disease, with 20 percent of all cancer-related deaths linked to tobacco (Stebbins 1991). Cancer has not only been linked to cancer, but also to cardiovascular disease and chronic obstructive lung disease (Stebbins 1991). Every year, there is an increasing amount of scientific and medical research that links tobacco to preventable deaths and diseases. Yet, the American people are not always knowledgeable about cutting edge research due in large part to the strong presence of tobacco lobbyists.

The American people elect state and national senators and representatives to make laws that protect their interests. If some of these elected officials have been bought and paid for through big tobacco, then the American people have a right to know. The hypothesis that will be tested and evaluated through this research project is as follows: Money donated by tobacco-lobby groups directly influenced the actions of politicians in office. This hypothesis shall be proven true or false via a thorough investigation of literature and data regarding tobacco money paid to politicians and the passing of regulations or deregulations as well as economic policies that favor the tobacco industry.

Research Methods
The methodology employed in this research project is to follow the money trail. Campaign contributions are not always made directly from a lobbyist’s interest group to the candidate. Therefore, the first step in research is to locate donations that have been influential in recent elections, trace the money to its source, and then investigate how this donation influenced an elected official’s behaviors and voting record. Equal attention shall be paid to Democrat and Republican candidates, such that no political party bias is presented in these findings. Additionally, equal attention shall be paid to state-level and national-level elections.

In addition to researching monetary contributions to campaigns, a thorough literature review shall be conducted to learn the historical trajectory of tobacco lobbyists in America. What were the original interests of tobacco lobbyists? How did those interests change over time? Tobacco lobbyists have been a force in American politics for decades, so a thorough review of literature will provide a lens to understand the role of tobacco lobbyists in the present political climate.

Lastly, an evaluation of all data collected will determine if the hypothesis is proven true or false, and both research questions shall be answered. The compiling of research that holds both depth and breadth on the topic of tobacco lobbyists is necessary to provide a valid answer to these research questions, as well as an accurate conclusion on the validity of the research hypothesis.

Literature Review
In 1998, tobacco companies spent $72 million lobbying for their interests in state and national politics. Since that time, funds directed towards lobbying have sharply decreased, with only $19 million spent by tobacco lobbyists in 2016 (Glenza 2017). Yet, the tobacco lobby is still strong. In 2016, the Altria Group, parent company to Philip Morris International, and RJ Reynolds spent $4 million in North Dakota and another $7 million in Colorado to successfully defeat cigarette tax increase referendums in both states (Glenza 2017). In order to fully understand the place of tobacco lobbyists in current U.S. politics, it is important to look at the historical trajectory of big tobacco.

The tobacco industry has influenced U.S. politics for more than a century. Allan Brandt, dean of Harvard’s Graduate School of Arts & Sciences states, “the tobacco industry invented the kind of special-interest lobbying that has become so characteristic of the late 20th- and earlier 21st-century American politics” (Keck 2009). During the 1950s and 1960s, tobacco lobbyists argued that scientific research on tobacco was inconclusive and unreliable. Yet, in 1964, the U.S. surgeon general released an official statement regarding the health risks of tobacco. One year later, Congress voted to require cigarette packages to include warning labels (Keck 2009). By 1970, radio and television advertisements for cigarettes could no longer be aired (Keck 2009). The tobacco companies responded with marketing campaigns of their own. In 1978, RJ Reynolds Tobacco Company launched its “Pride in Tobacco” campaign (Fallin and Glantz 2015).

During the 1980s, tobacco lobbyists continued to fund their interests in American politics on both national and state levels. In 1988, the State of California passed Proposition 99, which added a 25-cent tax on each pack of cigarettes. The tobacco lobbyists responded by increasing their spending ten times over. The result of this spending was that only 14 percent of the tax revenues were dedicated to anti-tobacco education (Bengay et al 1993). California’s most powerful legislative leader, Speaker of the Assembly Willie Brown, received more than $221,000 in contributions from big tobacco, the single largest recipient nationwide (Bengay et al 1993). Thus, even as tobacco taxes were passed and regulations increased, the lobbyists found ways to protect their companies’ interests.

Public opinion began to turn against tobacco on a national level by the 1990s. In 1992, Wayne McLaren, the infamous “Marlboro Man,” starred in anti-smoking ads, shortly before his own death due to smoking-related illnesses (Keck 2009). Later in that same decade, RJ Reynolds Tobacco Company voluntarily discontinued the use of “Joe the Camel,” shortly after marketing research indicated that young children identified this caricature as easily as Mickey Mouse (Keck 2009). Yet, the biggest blow to big tobacco came in the form of lawsuits. Tobacco donations hit their peak in the mid-1990’s as the tobacco industry was settling state lawsuits in regards to smoking-related illnesses. Representative John Boehner has admitted that he handed out donation checks from tobacco lobbyists on the House floor in 1995. These campaign donation checks were big tobacco’s attempt to persuade politicians in their favor. A resolution was reached in 1998, as the tobacco industry agreed to the largest settlement in U.S. history. Tobacco companies would pay $206 billion to 46 states (Keck 2009).

North Carolina, a dominant tobacco-producing state, receives $139 million annually from tobacco settlements. However, this money has not been appropriately allocated for anti-smoking purposes. In fact, North Carolina politicians have diverted at least 50 percent of the funds towards tobacco farms that the retrofitting of tobacco curing barns (Jones et al 2007). One of the politicians responsible for such financial decisions is Brent Jackson, a state senator in North Carolina. A tobacco farmer himself, Jackson also sponsored a bill in North Carolina to prevent union negotiation with tobacco growers. Jackson was compensated for his devotion to the tobacco industry with $9,400 in donations towards his senate campaign (Glenza 2017).

In the current political climate, tobacco lobbyists remain a strong force. Senator Richard Blumenthal, a former U.S. attorney general who helped broker the settlement in 1998 states, “Tobacco industry influence in Washington is pervasive… They have an active presence on the Hill, they meet frequently with administrative agencies on hugely significant issues such as regulation of e-cigarettes, tobacco packing and warnings” (Glenza 2017). During the past two years, tobacco’s influence is evident in national politics. Reynolds American and the Altria Group, the largest cigarette manufacturers in the United States, donated $1.5 million for President Donald Trump’s inauguration (Glenza 2017). The donation is not entirely surprising, since President Trump had investments in tobacco companies until the time of his declared candidacy. According to his financial disclosures, President Trump made $2.1 million from tobacco holdings during the years of 2014-2016 (Glenza 2017). President Trump’s loyalty to these tobacco companies would continue after his election.

Several individuals in the Trump administration have ties to tobacco interests. Noel Francisco, the current Solicitor General nominated by President Trump and confirmed by the Senate, previously represented RJ Reynolds alongside its parent company Reynolds American Inc. in arguing for lower restrictions on cigarette packaging (Glenza 2017). Meanwhile, Tom Price, who served as U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services for most of 2017, owned shares in Philip Morris International and Altria, the nations largest tobacco manufacturers. Throughout Price’s terms in Congress, he received more than $37,000 in tobacco contributions to his campaigns. Price returned the favor to these tobacco giants by voting against a cigarette tax increase and against the FDA’s regulation of tobacco (Glenza 2017). Yet, this same voice leading the charge against tobacco regulation was then tapped for Secretary of Health and Human Services.

Even Vice President Mike Pence has ties to tobacco companies. In an e-mail exchange between lobbyists in 2001, they discuss cutting a check to Mike Pence for his congressional campaign. This was the same year that Pence published on his campaign website that “smoking doesn’t kill” (Glenza 2017). Perhaps nobody should be surprised that Pence would later serve as Vice President in an administration whose inauguration was funded by Reynolds American, the makers of Camel and Newport cigarettes, and the Altria Group, whose products include Marlboro cigarettes and Skol chewing tobacco.

In addition to financing campaigns and inaugurations on the presidential level, tobacco companies have vested interest in the campaigns of individual states. As previously stated, North Carolina receives $139 annually from tobacco settlements, and lobbyists have proven savvy in influencing the disbursements of that money. In addition, tobacco lobbyists made their largest single donation in 14 years to influence a singular U.S. Senate race in North Carolina in 2016. The tobacco lobbyists donated $1.1 million to Grow NC Strong, an organization fully funded by tobacco for the purpose of defeating Deborah Robb in the U.S. Senate race (Schofield 2017). Tobacco simultaneously donated more than $200,000 to incumbent Richard Burr’s campaign, who successfully defeated Robb in the election (Schofield 2017).

By making substantial donations to Grow NC Strong, tobacco lobbyists were able to influence the 2016 U.S. Senate election in North Carolina. Grow NC Strong spent a total of $1.27 million in the 2016 election cycle, with $1.19 million of that money allocated to attack advertisements on Deborah Robb (Schofield 2017). Of that $1.19 million, $1.1 million was funded by tobacco interests (Schofield 2017). Yet, the advertisements against Robb never mentioned tobacco. In fact, the anti-Robb advertisements criticized her opposition of expanding DNA collection among criminals (Schofield 2017). Grow NC Strong was successful in defeating Deborah Robb, but most citizens of North Carolina had no knowledge of this organization nor did they realize that it was funded by tobacco companies. Grow NC Strong listed “RAI Services” as its major donor, which upon additional investigation could be delineated as Winston-Salem and Reynolds American Tobacco Companies (Schofield 2017).

So, why did the tobacco companies have such a vested interest in this one U.S. Senate seat from North Carolina? It is because the incumbent, Richard Burr, had been a longtime friend of tobacco interests, with a voting history of opposing FDA oversight. When asked about his choice to vote against tobacco regulations, Burr claimed that he has a responsibility to “support and protect” tobacco, expressing that, “tobacco is a substantial part of North Carolina’s economy” (Schofield 2017). In one response to interviewers, Burr stated, “Fighting to support and protect the interests of the North Carolina families who are making a living through tobacco farming is no different than supporting the interests of North Carolina’s world-class health care and research institutions” (Schofield 2017). Indeed, Richard Burr has been a friend to the tobacco companies, and the tobacco lobbyists showed their gratitude by ensuring that he won re-election in 2016.

North Carolina state legislation has also been impacted through the work of tobacco lobbyists. In 2013, Senate Bill 530 became known as the “Prohibit E-Cigarette Sales to Minors” legislative action. While the title creates an image of protecting children from the dangers of tobacco, the bill actually had an entirely different context. Due to the work of tobacco lobbyists, namely Reynolds American lobbyist Tom Fetzer, the bill changed the definition of e-cigarettes so that they would not be part of the ban on “tobacco products” on public school campuses (Schofield 2013). The North Carolina Alliance for Health rallied against the deceptive bill, stating, “SB 530 / HB 864 will confuse and complicate the enforcement of existing and future tobacco control laws by excluding electronic-cigarettes, vapor products and other tobacco-derived products from the existing universal definition of ‘tobacco products’ in North Carolina law” (Schofield 2013). Sadly, the lobbyists poured enough money into the bill – and into campaign contributions for elected officials – that it quickly passed on the Senate floor.

The adult smoking rate nationwide has decreased during the past 50 years. As reported by the Centers for Disease Control, 42.4 percent of adults smoked in 1965, but only 16.8 percent smoked in 2014 (Glenza 2017). Nevertheless, the tobacco lobby still reigns supreme throughout state and national politics. The greatest concentration of the lobby is in those geographic areas where the smoking rate is higher and tobacco production is part of the local and state economies. What is particularly concerning about this influence is that smoking-related illnesses are disproportionately impacting poorer Americans. For example, 26 percent of adults in West Virginia smoked in 2014, with one out of every five deaths among people over age 35 due to smoking (Glenza 2017). The West Virginia Department of Health consequently reported that a person with a high school education is nine times more likely to smoke than a person with a graduate degree (Glenza 2017). Meanwhile, the World Health Organization reports that some low-income households spent up to ten percent of their income on tobacco products (Armstrong 2017).  [“Write my essay for me?” Get help here.]

Tobacco-growing states have lagged behind other states in legislation to limit and control tobacco use. The five major tobacco-growing states – Kentucky, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia – have higher rates of smoking, fewer protective laws against smoking, and lower taxes on tobacco (Fallin and Glantz 2015). Part of the reason why these states lag behind others is due to cultural norms of smoking, but a larger part is the ever-present tobacco lobbyists pouring endless funds into protecting their own interests. As two researchers state, “The tobacco industry works through a policy network, which includes tobacco-area legislators, agricultural interest groups, and commissioners of agriculture” (Fallin and Glantz 2015). Tobacco lobbyists reach all facets of their industry and the influence is substantial. However, in 2009, North Carolina became the first major tobacco-growing state to pass smoke-free legislation that includes bars and restaurants (Fallin and Glantz 2015).

Overall, tobacco lobbyists seem unstoppable on the state and national levels. Their deep pockets fund the campaigns of some candidates while simultaneously running attack campaigns against other candidates. Meanwhile, the lobbyists pour money into elections and legislature votes regarding package labels, smoke-free zones, and tax rates. “Tobacco has a long history of spending to influence legislators,” according to Patrick Reynolds, the 68-year-old grandson of founder R.J. Reynolds (Schofield 2017). An opponent of tobacco lobbying, Patrick Reynolds explains, “They spend a lot because they get what they pay for” (Schofield 2017). [Need an essay writing service? Find help here.]

Research Findings
Tobacco lobbyists are spending less money in the current political climate than two decades ago. Tobacco companies spent approximately $20 million annually to lobby for their interests in state and national matters, down more than $50 million from what they spent in the 1990s when the industry was in the midst of state lawsuits (Glenza 2017). Nevertheless, tobacco companies are still a persuasive force in American politics. As demonstrated in the graph below, campaign contributions have remained substantial over the course of the past decade. Additionally, while the 2016 election appears to have lesser donations than previous years, this year marked a sharp increase in soft money donations (Schofield 2017). Those donations are not as easily tied to the candidate, thus a candidate can evade the appearance of working alongside big tobacco.

Despite the negative press on a national level that equates tobacco as a harmful substance, the tobacco lobbyist campaign contributions remain strong. These tobacco lobbyists would submit that tobacco provides a host of economic benefits such as job creation, a robust gross domestic product, a positive trade deficit, and tax revenue (Stebbins 1991). In fact, many U.S. tobacco companies continue to advertise on an international level, despite advertising bans within the U.S. borders. Politicians are easily persuaded by tobacco lobbyists to allow this advertisement to continue, despite any ethical concerns, in order to keep tobacco exports favorable (Stebbins 1991). [“Write my essay for me?” Get help here.]

Although the tobacco lobby has been hugely influential, these lobbyists have not been able to prevent the increase of taxes on tobacco products. As indicated in the graph below, excise taxes on tobacco products have risen sharply since 2001 on both the state and national levels.

In researching the influence of the tobacco lobby, neither political party is the sole recipient of tobacco influence. Both Republican and Democratic candidates have received contributions from big tobacco, although a greater percentage has gone to Republications. During the 2014 and 2016 election cycles, 84 percent of campaign contributions from tobacco interests were made to Republican candidates (Glenza 2017). Consequently, some of these Republican lawmakers have proposed cuts to the Centers for Disease Control education programs that warn against tobacco use (Glenza 2017).

In the end, the research hypothesis has been proven true. Money donated by tobacco-lobby groups has directly influenced the actions of politicians in office. Although it is not every politician in every office, there are documented instances whereby tobacco lobbyists have influenced the actions of politicians on both the state and national levels. Similarly, the research questions have been answered to demonstrate a correlation between tobacco industry donations and the passing of agricultural, economic, and consumer regulations that favor tobacco. The role that lobbyists play is to covertly funnel money into campaigns that benefit those politicians who vote in favor of tobacco interests. In fact, tobacco lobbyists appear to be more secretive with their influential donations in recent years than decades ago.

Indeed, tobacco is one of the most profitable cash crops in the history of the United States. Medical and scientific research has advanced tremendously since the early tobacco farmers in U.S. Colonial history. Yet, in spite of the known health risks related to tobacco, its use has not been eradicated. Tobacco lobbyists will continue to fund campaigns for political candidates as long as those candidates will continue to vote in the interests of big tobacco.


Armstrong, Martin. 2017. “Tobacco Lobbying in the USA.” Statista (May 31).
(April 18, 2018).

Begay, Michael Evans, Stanton A. Glantz, and Michael Traynor. 1993. “The Tobacco Institute,
State Politics, and Tobacco Education in California.” American Journal of Public Health 83(9):1214.

Fallin, Amanda, and Stanton A. Glantz. 2015. “Tobacco-Control Policies in Tobacco-Growing
States: Where Tobacco Was King.” The Milbank Quarterly 93(2): 319-358. doi: 10.1111/1468-0009.12124

Glenza, Jessica. 2017. “Tobacco Companies Tighten Hold on Washington Under Trump.” The 
Guardian (July 13). (April 15, 2018).

Jones, Alison S., W. David Austin, Robert H. Beach, and David G. Altman. (2007). “Funding of
North Carolina Tobacco Control Programs Through the Master Settlement Agreement.” American Journal of Public Health, 97(1): 36-44.

Keck, Kristi. 2009. “Big Tobacco: A History of Its Decline.” CNN Politics (June 19).
(April 20, 2018).

Schofield, Matthew. 2017. “Big Tobacco is Back Trying to Influence Elections – Especially in
NC.” The Charlotte Observer (February 11). (April 20, 2018).

Schofield, Rob. 2013. “Blast from the Past: Tobacco Lobby Ramming Through Deceptive Bill
that Endangers Kids.” The Progressive Pulse (May 10). (April 21, 2018).

Stebbins, Kenyon Rainier. 1991. “Tobacco, Politics, and Economics: Implications for Global
Health.” Social Science and Medicine 33(12): 1317-1326.

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By Hanna Robinson

Hanna has won numerous writing awards. She specializes in academic writing, copywriting, business plans and resumes. After graduating from the Comosun College's journalism program, she went on to work at community newspapers throughout Atlantic Canada, before embarking on her freelancing journey.

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